Nov 23, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier (10) shoots the ball in front of Phoenix Suns guard Brandon Knight (11) during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic have passed the quarter pole of the 2017 season. They do not have the record they want but have formed an identity to build from.
The Orlando Magic are quickly settling into their identity, accomplishing perhaps the biggest goal of the first 20-or-so games. The defense has risen to the top of the league and the team is finding ways to win games — important games.
It was a rocky road for sure. Orlando had to learn some things about itself and build chemistry during the season. The Magic faced some humiliating blowout defeats and an anemic offense — that still ranks near the bottom of the league. There were still plenty of doubts.
Sitting at 9-12, the Magic are not where they want to be. They still have work to do to climb out of the middle tier of the Eastern Conference and get into the Playoff conversation. But they are not too far removed from the race to lose contact. Orlando’s goals are still in front of it.
But even when the schedule came out, everyone knew the Magic might have to bank some wins early. The schedule stiffens considerably in the season’s second quarter.
The Magic are seemingly moving up after this past week and securing a winning road trip to begin December. Things seem to be progressing and the Magic are figuring things out more and more. Orlando looks intriguing now, if not downright promising.
The Playoff dreams are still in clear focus.
Of course, the season’s progression brings with it more questions. It is always a game of whack-a-mole. Hit a few problems on the head to watch them recede into their cubbies and another one is bound to pop up.
The Magic focused on their defense, their offense cratered. The Magic changed their lineup once and solved one problem to add more. The new lineup change has balanced some things but it has also raised a few more questions. And certainly, the Magic’s long-term future remains in question.
The next 20-or-so games will be important. As golfers always say, you cannot win the tournament in the first round, but you can certainly lose it.
The Magic did not lose anything in the first quarter of the season. But they have some ground to make up. And a difficult second quarter of the season will test them even more.
Here are some questions the Magic face in the next quarter of the season.
Nov 5, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo (11) blocks Washington Wizards forward Markieff Morris (5) shot during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Washington Wizards 88-86. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Can the Orlando Magic remain consistent defensively?
Perhaps this is more of an issue of doubt for the Magic. It has been four long years without much of an identity and just hoping young talent grows individually and comes together enough. Last year was supposed to bring a defensive identity with Scott Skiles in two.
Last year was supposed to bring a defensive identity with Scott Skiles in too.
And through the first two months of the season, Skiles did get the Magic to play pretty strong defense. Orlando ranked ninth in the league in defensive rating through Dec. 31. The Magic earned a 19-13 record.
Then, of course, the wheels fell off.
The team fell to 17th in the league overall, finishing 25th in defensive rating in the 2016 calendar year last season. So skepticism is still pretty healthy. Early season success does not
So skepticism is still pretty healthy. Early season success does not make a Playoff team.
The Magic have been the hottest defensive team in the league for the last month. Since Nov. 11, the Magic have a 95.8 defensive rating, the tops in the league by 4.7 points per 100 possessions. They are the only team holding opponents to less than a point per possession.
It has helped Orlando rise to the third best defensive rating in the league overall for the season. This is looking like an elite defense with Serge Ibaka hounding players at the rim, Aaron Gordon guarding players with stifling defense on the perimeter and everyone else fitting into the scheme perfectly. Nikola Vucevic is turning in his best defensive season
Nikola Vucevic is turning in his best defensive season by far — his 2.8 defensive box plus-minus at the moment is his best by more than a point per 100 possessions and he is posting his best defensive win shares per 48 minutes in his career.
The Magic have their most dominant defensive players since Dwight Howard was roaming the paint. There is undoubtedly more defensive talent and Frank Vogel is an extremely gifted defensive coach.
It seems like it is all too good to be true.
The team has seen the bottom fall out defensively before. And certainly, as the schedule stiffens this quarter, the Magic’s numbers may fall back to earth some. The question is can the Magic’s defense keep up this torrid pace and do enough to support an offense that is still struggling?
The Magic have carved a defensive identity. It feels like this defense is very real and not a product of the team’s weak schedule. But defense can be precarious. The Magic need to see continued success.
Nov 11, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton (4) drives to the basket against the Utah Jazzduring the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Can the Orlando Magic offense reach competency?
Just as the defense has soared, the offense has struggled.
The Magic keep their pace slow as a product of their defense, despite the desired intention to run. The pace stays low because the team has to work deep into the shot clock most possessions to get a good shot.
As good as the Magic’s defense is, the Magic’s offense is terrible.
Orlando is still 29th in the league in offensive rating (96.8 points per 100 possessions). The team is still last in the league in effective field goal percentage. The Magic simply do not make shots. The team has slowly improved, but its net rating remains in the bottom 10 — suggesting Orlando is one of the worst teams in the league.
Since Nov. 11 — the dividing line when the Magic first made their lineup change with Aaron Gordon — the Magic offense is not much better. That starting lineup featuring Jeff Green was famous for its stellar defense and its equally terrible offense.
Since the most recent lineup change, though, the Magic are faring better. They have a 101.3 offensive rating, 20th in the league since that date.
That is still not good, but it is not terrible either. It feels completely passable.
And that is what the Magic are going for here. They do not need the strongest offense in the league. They do not even need a top-10 offense — not until they are interested in contending, honestly.
To achieve their goals, the Magic just need a competent, league-average offense it would seem. That is what the team got in the last two games. But that has not been easy for the team.
Things do seem to be trending up offensively. Cautiously the team has found better offensive balance with its lineups. But the samples are too small. For Orlando to succeed in the second quarter of the season, the Magic need an offense that, well, works.
Oct 29, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) shoots the ball as Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith (5) defends during the first quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Who emerges as the star?
The Orlando Magic do not necessarily need a superstar player to emerge this year. The team is not trying to compete for a title quite yet. They just want to make the Playoffs.
That is the bigger question. And it is less about sending a player to New Orleans for All-Star Weekend and more about having someone the team can consistently rely on.
Evan Fournier currently leads the team with 17.2 points per game. But he is struggling from the floor, shooting 43.4 percent from the floor. Teams are focusing more on him and he has more playmaking responsibility now.
What has been big for the Magic in the last few weeks is Serge Ibaka’s emergence.
Ibaka is averaging 14.8 points per game while shooting 49.2 percent from the floor and 40.9 percent from beyond the arc.
But in the last six games, Ibaka is averaging 17.3 points per game, shooting 56.8 percent from the floor, 32.0 percent from beyond the arc and grabbing 6.7 rebounds per game and an astounding 2.7 blocks per game.
Those are some stellar numbers. It is no coincidence the Magic have reached another level since Ibaka started this tear. The Magic are getting exactly what they traded for in Ibaka the past several weeks.
He looks much more energized and connected defensively. And the team is using him more effectively offensively — fewer post ups, more pick and pops and trailing 3-pointers.
The question with everything is consistency. Can the Magic keep all this up? Things have fluctuated too wildly for Orlando to feel like it has everything under control.
Nov 14, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Orlando Magic head coach Frank Vogel reacts to a foul call in the second half of the game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana Pacers beat the Orlando Magic 88-69. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
How do you handle the schedule?
The Magic opened the season with one of the easiest schedules in the league. And they are below the .500 line. That has certainly set off some warning lights, especially as the team struggled to find their identity.
They appeared to have found something after a three-game losing streak at home during Thanksgiving and the start of the road trip. This early December road trip was going to be a big test point to start the second quarter.
So far the Magic have passed with one minor hiccup. A 3-1 record to start this road trip is still very stellar.
Orlando takes on its only four-games-in-five-nights stretch of the season this week beginning in Washington on Tuesday. It is more or less an extension of the road trip.
In the next 20 games, the Magic do not have any long road trips. And they have a fairly balanced and manageable schedule. They take on the L.A. Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets. But the remaining games are against teams the Magic are either fighting for Playoff positioning with or are below them in the standings.
Like the ending to the first quarter, the Magic will head in for the season with their first big West Coast road trip in early January. And the third quarter is when the schedule really begins to toughen up — the West Coast trip and several long road trips with a NCAA Tournament road trip and the WrestleMania road trip upcoming at the end of the season.
The next 20 games will have plenty more opportunities to bank some wins again. And the Magic need to use this as the time to race back into the hunt.
Nov 16, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) shoots the ball over New Orleans Pelicans forward Terrence Jones (9) during the second half at Amway Center. The Magic won 89-82. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Will everyone be happy in their roles?
The Orlando Magic have shifted their lineup and rotation a few times. It seems like the team is going to be active in the trade market.
For now, the Magic seem to have things working. They seem to have found some balance. But that has come at a bit of a cost.
Vucevic is producing off the bench. But he has made it fairly clear throughout the summer and even after his first game off the bench that he would prefer to be starting. Elfrid Payton has been a starter his entire career with the Magic.
Vogel said he appreciates the sacrifice those players have made and how they have responded to their new roles. As long as the team is winning, it is hard to see them being too upset for the long term.
But inevitably everything comes to a head. Winning will mask some problems, but not all.
Whether the Magic continue to accept their roles or whether the Magic feel they have to make some moves to relieve some of the pressure.
The competition for Orlando within the roster will only increase. If they hit a rough patch in the season, things could boil up pretty easily.